In 1861, from February to June, the ghost of Baron George Cuvier haunted the Anthropological Society of Paris. The great Cuvier, Aristostle of French biology (an immodest designation from which he did not shrink), died in 1832, but the physical vault of his spirit lived on as Paul Broca and Louis Pierre Gratiolet squared off to debate wether or not the size of a brain has anything to do with the intelligence of its bearer.
In the opening ground, Gratiolet dared to argue that the best and brightest could not be recognized by their big heads (Gratiolet, a confirmed monarchist, was not egalitarian. He merely sought other measure to affirm the superiority of white European males.). Broca, founder of the Anthropological Society and the world’s greater craniometrician (head measurer), replied that “study of the brains of human races would loose most of its interest and utility” if variation in size counted for nothing. Why, he asked, have anthropologists spent so much time measuring heads if the results had no bearing upon what he regarded as the most important question of all – the relative worth of different peoples:
“Among the questions heretofore discussed within the Anthropological Society, one is equal in interest and importance to the question before us now….The great importance of Craniology has struck anthropologists with such force that many among us have neglected the other part of our science in order to devote ourselves almost exclusively to the study of skulls….in such data, we hope to find some informations relevant to the intellectual value of the various human races”
Broca and Gratiolet battled for five months and through nearly 200 pages of the published bulletin. In the heart of the battle, one of Broca’s lieutenants struck the lowest blow of all “I have noticed for a long time that, in general those who deny the intellectual importance of the brain’s volume have small heads”.
In the end, Broca won, hands down. During the debate, no item of information had been more valuable to Broca – none more widely discussed or more vigorously contened – than the brain of Georges Cuvier.
Cuvier, the greater anatomist of his time, the man who revised our understanding of animals by classifying them according to function – how they work , rather than by rank – in an anthropocentric scale of lower to higher. Cuvier, the founder of paleontology, the man who first established the fact of extinction and who stressed the importance of catastrophes in understanding the history of both life and the earth. Cuvier, the great statesman who, like Talleyrand, managed to serve all French governments, from revolution to monarchy, and die in bed. F. Bourdier, a recent biographer, describes Cuvier’s corporeal ontogeny, but his words also serve as a good metaphor for Cuvier’s power and influence “Cuvier was short and during the Revolution he was very thin; he became stouter during the Empire; and he grew enormously fat after the Restoration”.
Cuvier’s contemporaries marveled at his “massive head”. One admirer affirmed that “ it gave to his entire person an undeniable cachet of majesty and to his face an expression of profound meditation”
Thus, his colleagues – in the interest of science and curiosity – decided to open the great skull of him at his death. On Tuesday, May 15, 1832, at seven o’clock in the morning, a group of the greatest doctors and biologists of France gathered to dissect the body of Georges Cuvier. They began with the internal organs and, finding “nothing very remarkable”, switched their attention to Cuvier’s skull.
“Thus”, wrote the physician in charge, “we were about to contemplate the instrument of this powerful intelligence”. And their expectations were rewarded. The brain of Georges Cuvier weighed 1830 grams, more than 400 grams above average and 200 grams larger than any non diseased brain previously weighed. Cuvier had provided the first direct evidence that brilliance and brain size go together.
Broca pushed his advantage and rested a good part of his case on Cuvier’s brain. But Gratiolet probed and found a weak point. In their awe of enthusiasm, Cuvier’s doctors had neglected to save either his brain or his skull. Moreover, they reported no measures on the skull at all. The figure of 1830 grams for the brain could not be checked: perhaps it was simply wrong. Gratiolet sought an existing surrogate and had a flash of inspiration ”All brains are not weighed by doctors, but all heads are measured by hatters and I have managed to acquire, from this new source, information which, I dare to hope, will not appear to you as devoid of interest”. In short, Gratiolet found the Cuvier’s hat. Cuvier’s hat measured 21.8 cm in length and 18.0 cm in width. He then conducted a certain M. Puriau “one go the most intelligent and widely know hatters of Paris”. Puriau told him that he largest standard size for hats measured 21,5 by 18,5 cm. Although very few men wore a hat so big. Cuvier was not off scale! Moreover, Gratiolet reported with evident pleasure that hat was extremely flexible and “softened by very long usage”. IT had probably not been so large when Cuvier bought it . Moreover, Cuvier had an exceptionally thick head of hair and he wore it bushy. “This seems to prove quite clearly”, Gratiolet proclaimed, “that if Cuvier’s head was very large, its size was not absolutely exceptional or unique”.
Gratiolet’s opponents preferred to believe the doctors and refused to grant much weight to a bit of cloth. More than 20 years later, in 1883, G. Hervé again took up the subject of Cuvier’s brain and discovered a missing item: Cuvier’s head had been measured after all, but the figures had been omitted from the autopsy report. The skull was big indeed, shaved of the famous mat of hair, as it was from autopsy: its greatest circumference could be equaled by only 6 percent of “scientists and men of letters” and zero percent of domestic servants. Hervé did cite the following anecdote “Cuvier had a habit of leaving his hat on a table in his waiting room. it often happened that a professor or statesmen tried it on. The hat descended below they eyes”.
But, at the same time, Hervé snatched potential defeat from the jaws of Broca’s victory. Too much of good thing can be as troubling as a deficiency? Why did Cuvier’s brain exceed those of other “men of genius” by so much? He reviewed both details of the autopsy and record of Cuvier’s frail early health and constructed a circumstantial case for “Transient juvenile hydrocephaly”, or water into the brain. If Cuvier’s skull had been artificially enlarged by the pressure of fluids early during its growth, then a brain of normal size might simply have expended – by decreasing in density, not by growing larger – into the space available. But unluckily all the measures during the autopsy had been tossed out, except the weight of 1830 grams and Hervé could not resolve the enigma by calculating the density.
On the surface, this tale seems ludicrous: France’s finest anthropologists arguing passionately about the meaning of a dead colleague’s hat! But a clue of vital importance lies in the last line of Broca’s statement “In such data, we hope to find some informations relevant to the intellectual value of the various human races”. Broca and his school wanted to show that brain size, through its link with the intelligence, could resolve what they regarded as the primary question for a “science of man” – explaining why some individuals and groups are more successful than others. To do this, they separated people according to a priori convictions about their worth – men versus women, white versus blacks, men of genius versus ordinary folks – and tried to demonstrate difference in brain size. The brains of eminent men (literally males) formed an essential link in they argument – and Cuvier was the crème de la crème.
Broca concluded “ In general, the brain is lager in men than in women, in eminent men than in men of mediocre talent, in superior races than in inferior races. Other things equal, there is a remarkable relationship between the development of intelligence and the volume of the brain”
Broca died in 1880, but disciples continued his catalog of eminent brains (indeed, the added Broca’s own to the list – although it weighed in an undistinguished 1484 grams). The direction of famous colleagues became something of acottage industry among anatomists and anthropologists.
By 1907, Spitzka, the most eminent American anatomist, presented a tabulation of 115 eminent men. As the list grew in length, ambiguity of results increased apace. At the upper end, Cuvier was finally overtaken when Turgenev’s brain broke the 2000 grams in 1883. But embarrassment and insult appeared at the other end. Walt Whitman managed to hear the varied carols of American singing with only 1282 grams, and the re-known Franz Josef Gall, the founder of phrenology – the science of judging metal worth by the size of localized brain areas – could muster only 1198 grams. Antatole France just 1.017 grams!
Even The brain of Einstein was analyzed, but its measures were in the average!
The physical structure of the brain must record intelligence in some way, and gross size and external shape are not likely to capturing anything of value.
From “The Panda’s Thumb” by Stephen Jay Gould (W.W. Northon & Company,)